Wheeling and Dealing with Plastic

Markets all over the Island are supplied with objects made on the illegal circuit of a material mostly derived from industrial waste or leftovers from the dump

Puesto de calzado de plástico en la feria de La Cuevita. (14ymedio)
Plastic footwear stall at the market of La Cuevita (14ymedio)

At the market of La Cuevita in San Miguel del Padron, some thousand people from all over the Island daily buy household goods, flip-flops and toys, all made of plastic. The purchasers come especially from rural areas where the economic situation is more precarious and the only thing that abounds is scarcity.

In order to sell in the market it is necessary to have a state license and a letter signed by the producers, also authorized, from whom the articles must be bought. The inspectors who pass through the sales stalls may require this letter, but in practice they pass with hand extended seeking money in exchange for not imposing a fine of 1,500 pesos on whomever has skipped the State’s rules of the game.

There are many manufacturers who have no license. In the Cotorro township flip-flops are manufactured and in La Guinera, a settlement located in San Miguel del Padron, there are producers of household goods. The toys, with twisted forms and faded colors, are brought from the eastern part of the country.

The first step is gathering the recyclable plastic among the wastes of industrial smelting and rummaging through the garbage in search of plastic items that can be exploited, without discarding the possibility of melting the trash cans themselves. In order to improve the quality of the final product, the manufacturers add virgin plastic. This granulated raw material is bought  under the table, gotten directly from state warehouses.

The mishmash is heated. When the material is quite melted it is injected under pressure into various molds. The injecting machines as well as the molds are produced by hand. When it liquefies, the homogenized paste takes on an earthy color, but artisans save the day using different colored dyes.

According to one of these artisans, who allows no photos on his patio, in many neighborhoods of the capital the police would have to search patio by patio and house by house because “reality is stubborn,” as he learned many years ago in a Communist Party school. “Even beer can be canned clandestinely,” he says. “Such machines are all over Havana. Where you least imagine it, there is one. The problem is to make the product and get it immediately out so that the chain is not discovered.”

The bowls and plates, funnels or any other object resulting from this mix of materials are not completely safe for storage of food intended for human consumption. “I don’t use any of the bowls that I buy in the  candonga for keeping food from one day to the other. But they are cheaper than those made in China which are sold in the hard currency stores and cost a third of a worker’s salary,” says Morena, a housewife who frequents the market.

The vendors place themselves at the entrance to the market. Some offer strings of onion and garlic, others little nylon bags. An old lady sells a bag of potatoes that she has just bought after a long line, and a teen carries a box of ice where he keeps popsicles that sell for 15 Cuban pesos. They often have to go running. A patrol passes every twenty minutes.

The police pass by often while overseeing legal sales in the market (14ymedio)
The police pass by often while overseeing legal sales in the market (14ymedio)

“If you resist arrest, they beat you. Then they take you to the 11 th Police Station, and railroad you and you don’t know if you’ll come out with a fine of 1,500 Cuban pesos or go directly to the Valle Grande prison,” says the popsicle salesman.

A man in his forties recounts how the police detained him once, accusing him of retailing without any proof, and they asked him for his identity card just because he was carrying a briefcase full of plastic plates that he had just bought. “It would be of no use to say it is my hobby to throw them in the air to practice my slingshot aim. Just like if they want to they seize everything and give you a fine. The police do not act for the benefit of the people,” he laments.

Mireya, almost seventy years of age, is the last link in the productive chain of plastic products. While others work in little brigades for a particular producer, authorized or not, she does it alone. She has put together brooms and brushes manually, with production wastes from state industry, for more than 20 years. “If they catch me doing this I can have serious problems with the authorities. I don’t do it to get rich. I have to assemble 100 brushes to earn 400 Cuban pesos [about $16 U.S.], and from that I have to invest part in order to buy the materials,” she explains.

Mireya does not want to get a license because she thinks the taxes are too high. Besides, she could not justify the materials that she uses to fabricate her brooms because, in spite of dealing with industrial waste, there exists no legal way of acquiring them. The bases and the bristles she buys from someone who, like her, has no license either and sells them more cheaply.

“What I would have left after paying for the license and the taxes would be more or less the same as the wage of a state worker. With that, added to my pension of 270 pesos, I can’t even live ten days. If you don’t believe what I am saying, take the rice and beans from the store, divide it into 30 piles to see how you eat and how you live. Then necessarily you have to live wheeling and dealing,” she concludes without ceasing to close the plastic threads with wire pincers.

Translated by MLK

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